The Christmas story is probably one of the best-known stories in many parts of the world not just for Christians but also to non-Christians. The events that preluded the birth in the manger and also the events that come after are well established in the minds of many people. Little children can string key events together even though they may not have all the details.
Given that we celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas, one would expect the Christmas narrative to be at the centre of the Liturgy of the Word, namely the gospel. However, every year on Christmas day, we are presented with John’s gospel which hasn’t got the Christmas narrative, at least in the way that we have become accustomed. There is no taking of a census, no journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, no looking for a place to give birth, no shepherds out in the field, no angels singing Gloria, and certainly no wise men from the east.
The gospel that we are presented is a ‘poetic hymn’ that is known as the Prologue… “In the beginning was the Word: and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things came to be, not one thing had its being but through him (Jn 1:1-3.)” Not quite the Christmas narrative that one, especially children would have come to expect (the nativity story is only found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke), especially when attending Mass on Christmas day.
There is a reason why this gospel is chosen. John’s way of thinking is so very different from the regular Christmas narratives. While the other Christmas narratives begin with the moment God chooses to send His Son into the world, John’s presentation of the birth of Jesus begins with demonstrating that Jesus already pre-existed from the beginning of what we call time.
Important as these might be, the incarnation narrative in John’s gospel is not focused on the “paraphernalia” surrounding Jesus’ birth, such as the manger or the shepherds, angels, and wise men. John’s Christmas narrative is not, to begin with bringing Jesus down to earth but wants to take us up to the realm of heaven, “to a time when there was no creation, no humanity, no animals, not even angels, a time when Jesus, the Word, co-existed with God in perfect love and unity of purpose.” In other words, John’s intention is to present not a historical narrative per se but a theological narrative of God-becoming-man.It is only after having taken us to the realm of God that we are told… “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). Likewise, the purpose of God coming to us is revealed only much later: “For this is how much God loved the world: he gave his one-of-a-kind Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).
Interestingly, there is a description of John and his role in this poetic hymn. The description of John the Baptist, being the last of the Old Testament prophets, represents the Old Testament prophets who have been prophesying of the coming of a Messiah. With the birth of Jesus, the time has come for God to enter our lives – a new beginning. As much as we would like to hear the traditional Christmas narrative, the theological narrative of John’s gospel presents us with a different lens to look at the baby in the manger. There are three key theological points that we can ponder this Christmas.
Firstly, it revolves around the words “In the beginning”. John begins with the same words that we find in the very first verse of the Book of Genesis. The coming of Jesus marks a new beginning for all of us – through the birth of Jesus in the manger, we are being reborn becoming children of God. The celebration of Christmas is a time to renew this intimate relationship and our faith in God. Through this new beginning, God embraces us through the child in the manger, the Saviour of the world.
Secondly, John refers to Jesus as the Word – the Word that pre-existed time. As we know, words in themselves are limited but the Word that John refers to is limitless, transcends human comprehension, and indescribable. It is the Word that we are called to follow because in John’s gospel we also hear the words of Jesus, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”. At Christmas, we are also invited to recommit to follow the Word who is revealed to the world by a guiding star. Jesus says, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (Jn 10:27).
Thirdly, Christmas has to be more than the birth of Jesus. It is a celebration of God with us. It is the realisation that God’s infusing love dwells among us. It is a sign that we are to carry that love and faithfulness to others. Like John the Baptist, Christmas reminds us that it is our baptismal call to witness to the Logos (Word), God’s living and breathing Word in our daily living.
In short, Christmas, as presented by our gospel today, reminds us of a time to be reborn in faith, a time to open our ears and be attentive to God’s Word, and a time to renew our baptismal call to be witnesses. Today, as we look to the child born in the manger, the Saviour of the world, may we all be inspired not just by God making His dwelling in our world but more importantly making His dwelling in our hearts, as we look to Him with great hope, love and joy.
In the midst of the sad and gloom that may surround us at this time, there is still good news: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2:10-11). Blessed Christmas everyone.
Christmas Day (25 Dec 2020)